Desire and Predicament
Catalina Cariaga

The following article was published in the August 1992 issue of Poetry Flash, number 233.

I first came upon Myung Mi Kim's work when she was named guest editor of HOW(ever), a publication of experimental feminist literature founded by Kathleen Fraser, Beverly Dahlen, and Frances Jaffer in San Francisco. I immediately had expectations. Having an interest in Asian American literature, I was anxious to read a poetry collection by a Korean American woman. Also having an interest in experimental poetry, I wanted to see how Kim's poetics has developed within the forum of modern feminist poetry. But mostly I wanted to see where the cultural and experimental factors would intersect in Kim's poems.

Conscious of my bias, I wanted to give Kim's Under Flag a fair reading. Further, I wanted to give her poems a fair hearing. Ideally the textual combined with the aural is what sets poetry apart from prose. And it is always illuminating to compare and contrast the experiences of both the reading and the hearing of a poet's work.

First the text. The cover of Under Flag is made up of abstract artwork - two untitled woodcut paintings by Norine Nishimura. I thought this was a good invitation: but I came upon a familiar barrier. The back cover of the book has a quote from Kathleen Fraser which describes Kim's book as:

... an assemblage of on-going effacements in the life of a child and her family under occupation by American forces in Korea and, later, in her struggle to enter an alien language and culture in the U.S. Not since Oppen, has the eroding presence of war on the wholeness of human existence been so vividly located ...

The quote does what all good 'blurbs' should do by encapsulating a book's theme or themes in a manner that is brief, concise and that deliberately encourages or discourages a potential reader or audience. But for better or for worse, the text is framed for its readers by a conventional if not convenient context. In Kim's case, Under Flag is cast into the social, cultural, and political foray. In reference to George Oppen's name, Kim's book is given its post-modernist marker.

Many of Kim's poems open with muted but compelling images which spring off of their titles, as in this excerpt where she wistfully (ironically) recalls the most arduous moments of her childhood, learning a new language:

And Sing We

Must it ring so true
So we must sing it

To span even yawning distance
And would we be near then

What would the sea be, if we were near it


It catches its underside and drags it back

What sound do we make, "n", "h", "g"

Speak and it is sound in time ... (p. 13)

The single, double and triple line spacings appear on the page as if to give the poem a time signature the way quarter, half and whole notes are scored on a staff of music. In the opening lines there is a triangulation of the short "i" vowel sounds when "ring," "sing," and "it" are interspersed, while "must" is intoned both as a question and as an imperative.

The consonant 'n', is given the same attention in lines three and four. The hard 'in' in "span" and "even" is set against the soft in "yawning" and "distance," almost to escape the necessity of an article. In the fifth line, the long 'e' vowel wounds are crowded together. Kim's use of vowels and consonants give musical distinction to lines that can threaten the limits of syntax.

Throughout the book, Kim's sense of lyricism seems to counteract its content. The fragmented imagery sheds light on both the personal and the historical subjugation of country, culture, gender and race. The pieces are held together like the details in a large classical Korean landscape painting, as in the book's title poem:

Under Flag

Is distance. If she knows it

Casting and again casting into the pond to hook the same turtle

Beset by borders conquered, disfigured


One house can be seen

Then another thatched roof

On this side of the sea the rancor of their arrival
Where invasion occurs according to schedule

Evanuees, a singular wave set against stubbed bluffs

Rigor of those who carry households on their backs ... (p. 16)

However, there are moments in the book where the luminous becomes dull, especially in the longer poems. In "Food, Shelter, Clothing," it is hard to negotiate the narrative no matter how much desire there is to place or read into the text; the poetic voice is unsustained:

Up against bounty and figured human

                       allaying surge

Geographical trodden shelter

Locate deciphering

            by force

As contour


      ga ga ga ga ... (p. 27)

I went to hear Myung Mi Kim read from Under Flag at three different venues: at a book party and reception in a private residence overlooking the Oakland Hills; at Cody's Books in Berkeley; and at the Japanese Cultural Center in San Francisco sponsored by the Kearny Street Workshop and Small Press Traffic. At all three events she was introduced as, "...Korean American ... she came to the United States at age nine ..." This kind of introduction is honorific. But again, for better or worse, Kim's work was framed for the audience by its ethnicity. And each time she was introduced, she tried to steer the audience away from framing her book ethnically - almost as a disclaimer. "My work isn't so much about the immigrant story," Kim said, "as it is about how that experience is branded or imprinted on the language of the poems." [paraphrased] I think her statement expresses both the desire and predicament of Asian American poets and writers today.

Some of her poems need to be read aloud as in the following excerpt from "Demarcation," which is charming on the page and sweet to the ear when Kim sings the motifs from a Korean folksong:

A bird calls out in perfect thirds: do-mi, do-mi

Domi, domi, saal zsin domi
Domi, domi, oh fat snapper             As complicated as it is

As dirt scrubbed off that a thousand hands smear on

As dim railings pen children at long tables spooning gruel

As the infant face is absence onto which we say

       It is like - it is like - (p. 38)

In her readings, Kim never read from the series of six poems called "These Fishing." Perhaps they are no longer current or relevant to Kim. Or perhaps from the time of their writing to the time of publication they seem less vital to her. But I think they are the most elegant pieces in the book. Visually they look like the five line English translations of Chinese lyrics from the Tang Dynasty that I grew up reading as a child. Filled with intriguing elements, their visual simplicity is deceiving. For example, "These Fishing Six":

As soldiers of this great enterprise


Perforce the intrepidly stationed buoys

Whose names lingering

What one thread to bring next to needle eye (p. 42)

The first two lines of this short poem represent the determination and the anxiety of a boat full of immigrants as they approach the waters of a new land. With the third line we wonder who of the many will take on a new name; who of the many will hold steadfast to their name? And whose name lingers that is left behind? The images shattered by the fourth line. The possessive and interrogative "whose" and "what" are counterintuitive in relation to the words that follow. The poem as a unit presents many possibilities that are, to name a few, 1) syntactical, 2) phonological and/or cultural, 3) perceptual, and 4) metaphorical.

Syntactically, we read the fourth line and try to rearrange the words (in our own mind) as an organized thought if not an actual sentence. For instance, one rearrangement of the third and fourth lines might read as, "their names linger / as the focus of an eye upon a needle to be threaded." There could be many variations on this phrase as we try to reconcile the infinitive "to bring" without the benefit of a true verb to clearly indicate the subject / predicate function of the phrase in light of the three preceeding lines. This is only one example of how we can read a text that may at first seem unsurmountable.

Phonologically, we wonder what motivated or generated an utterance like the fourth line? Is it random association? Or is it a product of a flashback and suppressed memory? It certainly violates the left-to-right assumptions of logic that we have for text in standard English. For me, the fourth line as a lyric quality that seems to be inherently Asian American. It is reminiscent of my seventy-three year old mother's language and how ti changes around the holidays. She might spend a week with my aunties speaking in Ilocano. And then she might teach my five year old niece how to mend a sock speaking in English. She might say, "anaco, take one thread to bring next to needle eye, kasta, like that!" My niece would not find it necessary to correct her syntax. She would understand the directional gaze of her lola's eyes, mirror her gestures, follow her fingerings and engage the task. The sock would be mended. And the song-like quality of her lola's phrases would become part of her linguistic repertoire.

Perceptually, the last word in the poem plays off of our ability to focus on an image. Is the "eye" in the poem the eye of the needle or the human eye of the subject? Is the needle an object "next to" the eye? Or is "to needle" an infinitive with an indirect object? On first reading and in subsequent readings, our perception changes with the text.

I am not implying that a specific linguistic strategy is required of us to appreciate the poem. But I am suggesting that we let our eyes and ears play with the language both as text and as music. Metaphorically, this poem represents the necessity and perniciousness of the immigration endeavor and how it is pulled by many forces between opposing shores.

The most centered reading that Kim gave was at the Japanese Cultural Center. As all events sponsored by the Kearny Street Workshop, the atmosphere was 'tribal' - sipping juice or wine, selling books, introducing family and friends and chatting with the artists beforehand. The audience was highly receptive. And her opening remarks were different. It was the first appeareance at which she felt comfortable enough to dedicate the reading to her father. She explained that after coming to the United States at age nine, her father was killed in an auto accident when she was fourteen. The painful irony of that story is not in the book. But the emotional impact of that experience as it is imprinted on her poetic language is most present. I looked at the book once again; the first page of Under Flag is inscribed, "for Young Ok Kim (1922-1972)."

The music of poetic language comes from a core more deep than we can sometimes imagine. And we are amazed to emerge from the perplexities of our losses as the "bluegill" (quite literally, a lyric symbol) peeps out of difficult lines.

She cound not talk without first looking at others' mouths (which language?)

(pushed into) crevice a bluegill might lodge in (p. 21)

Under Flag is not an easy text to engage. But by exploring the precision and possibility in Kim's use of poetic language, Under Flag grieves and sings as we desire.